Black Cake: Myth,Mystery: Debunking the Laurie Colwin Recipe
Every year just before Thanksgiving some dyed in the wool long time foodies get into the same discussion: the mysterious Laurie Colwin recipe for St. Vincent Black Cake. Is the ebony fruit cake fact or fiction? How to make and bake one successfully? Has anyone ever baked one sucessfully?
The original illusive "Black Cake" recipe was the subject of an enchanting Christmas time holiday article written by Laurie Colwin and published by Gourmet magazine in November of 1988, but the black cake story was also in Laurie's book, "Home Cooking". Supposedly, Laurie got the idea for the article and the recipe for the cake when she hired a housekeeper from the Isle of St. Vincent named, Betty Chambers. It was Betty's mother, (may the blessed woman rest forever midline on a football field) who brought the Black Cake recipe from her Caribbean island home. (I am certain the elder Ms. Chambers made this endearing little recipe swap specifically for the consternation and agravation of foodies world over; in order to comtemptuously hold them culinary hostage for the next two decades).
I have to preface this tale by informing the reader that is has long been the custom in Caribbean countries to make the old fashioned spirit soaked great cakes of the 1700's - the ones that were the original wedding cakes back on the "Old Sod" - the dear old puds that mimic the so very British spirit soaked, fruit packed Plum Puddings - the only difference is the cake is baked and the pudding is steamed; so, you will find that each tiny island in the Caribbean serves up variations of the traditional ancient ebonized Fruit Cake recipe for weddings, at Christmas, or to bat about the field on cricket days, but all these doused bastions of cake attitude come liberally soused with local rum. So, it seems our teetotaling Rastafarian island sisters were not so much keen on the cake part of the recipe, but rather more eager to incorporate a melange of ingredients for maximum alcohol absorbption to take the place of the spirited holiday punch bowl; Black cakes were more celebritory forms of "Lead Pipe" cakes which are hefty pound cake recipes formulated to soak up rum like a sponge, thereby ridding the non-alcoholic fervent religious believer of the "drinking" stigma while imparting all the mind bending advatages of liquid spirits. The Black Cake might just be one of the greatest cumbustors of all time.....by the way please, never place birthday candles on a Black cake.
Laurie's recipe for Black Cake called for soaking a wide variety of dried and candied fruits in Passover wine and Rum. For this reason you must macerate,chop and grind the fruits then put them to soak in 2 quarts of spirits (yes only 2 quarts, dearie) long before Thanksgiving. In fact, I have found, the longer you soak the fruits; the better the cake. This is no longer a problem in my house as I have turned to drinking after trying to bake this cake for almost 20 years and we acquired a Rumptof from Germany where I can keep my liqor stashed with a variety of dried fruits a-soaking - ready on a moments notice for tucking into luscious doughs; or sipping serruptitiously behind the oven door.
Legend has it that Emily Dickinson, the Belle of Amherst, made a version of the black cake for her dear father but the proportions of Emily's cake are gargantuan.
Nigella Lawson is to be accused of proliferating the black cake mystique by claiming to have cooked one, as well. Nigella even has the gall to tell the story of how she got the recipe under the same circumstances as Laurie: babysitter from the Caribbean, (dare we say, Nigella's cake story carries along with the tantilizing hint of plagarism) but,I have seen Nigella's cake on a web site with photo goodness and we never had a photo of Laurie Colwin's Black Cake.
My own Black cake experiences were of a Caucasian complexion, which resulted in my writing Groumet magazine and receiving back from them a curt letter of dismissal for my inability to find the correct ingredients only hinted at in the original article, also insinuating my culinary skills were skin deep: no help there.
So, you are saying to yourself, Okay, no big deal drunken soaked fruit and make the cake parts, but not so fast. The real problem with the recipe is the one ingredient that so far as I can tell, has eluded everyone, who was not island born, who ever tried to make this cake. Just when you were thinking that you were going crazy and unable to find the apocryphal "burnt sugar essence", allegedly available in West Indian shops; Laurie Colwin was forced into admitting to thousands of upset baking fans; that she had never made the cake!
After many years of searching I can tell you now the ingredient missing from the Colwin recipe is "browning sauce" also called "browning" ( which it turns out is really Kitchen Bouquet). Yes, culinary Virginias worldover, there is a Black Cake and the secret ingredient of Black Cake is acutally that little jug on your grocer's shelf originally intended for darkening gravies and browning meats: Kitchen Bouquet
By the way, the rum used in the cake should be "overproof" (which is stronger than regular rum but really I think you do not need to "overproof" this cake. Not sure where Laurie got the Passover wine bit but most Black Cake recipes from Jamaica, Tridnidad,Guana and so forth call for port, brandy and rum.
You can use this recipe to make a good black cake but replace the "3 ounces of burnt sugar" with (I think) 3 ounces of Kitchen Bouquet and you will be spot on for the darkest richest most inebriating cake you have ever eaten or drunk (sic).
CARIBBEAN BLACK CAKE
Makes 2 10-inch round cakes
1 pound dark raisins
1 pound currants
1 pound pitted prunes
1 pound glacé cherries
1/2 pound mixed peel
1 quart white rum
1 pound dark brown sugar
1 pound butter, plus butter for greasing pans
1 pound eggs (about one dozen)
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 pound flour, plus flour for dusting pans
1 tablespoon baking powder
3 ounces burnt sugar *
1 quart tawny port
Place fruits in a large plastic or glass bowl. Add one cup of rum. Put through a meat grinder, using a medium blade. Mix in the remaining rum so that the ground fruit forms a smooth paste. (Do not let fruits sit in a metal container; use either a plastic or a glass bowl.). Cover tightly. Let stand in a cool place for at least two weeks.
Preheat oven to 300 F.
Cream dark brown sugar and softened butter; in a separate bowl combine eggs and spices and whip until foamy. Combine eggs and butter-sugar mixture. Add ground fruits. Mix well.
In a separate bowl, mix flour with baking powder. Stir flour mixture into fruit mixture. Add burnt sugar. Batter should be dark brown.
Grease and lightly flour 2 10-inch springform baking pans that are at least three inches deep. Fill with mixture and bake for 2 hours or until a tester comes out clean.
Take pans out of oven. Let cool one hour, then remove cakes from pans and cool completely.
Pour one cup of Port over the top of each. Let it absorb. After 10 minutes, pour on remaining Port. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap. Do not use foil. Let cakes age at least a week. The longer the better.
Do not refrigerate. Make sure cakes remain moist. If they become dry, moisten with Port. The cake can be frozen.
* Burnt sugar: Combine 1/4 cup sugar with 2 tablespoons water. Boil over high heat until sugar turns into a caramel and starts burning. Transfer to a bowl, cool and add a little cold water to thin the burnt caramel.